The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Annise Parker of LGBTQ Victory Fund and LGBTQ Victory Institute
Our firm’s focus is on public affairs: communications about policy and politics and everything in between. With the start of a new session of Congress and the inauguration of a new President, many of us are focused on the role of public policy in our daily lives. And of course, we’re always interested in the political "horse races" that decide what kinds of policy get made.
With that in mind, now seemed like a good time to ask Mayor Annise Parker for her take on politics and communications and her best common sense communications advice. Mayor Parker is the first former elected official to lead the Victory Fund and Victory Institute. She served six years as a Houston City Council member, six years as City Controller and six years as Mayor. She was the first openly LGBTQ mayor of a major American city (paving the way for current LGBTQ mayors including Lori Lightfoot in Chicago and Jane Castor in Tampa).
As President and CEO of the Victory Fund and Victory Institute, Mayor Parker leads two teams of people working to elect openly LGBTQ candidates at every level and to support the work of openly LGBTQ officeholders once they are elected. As a former elected official, oil and gas industry technician, community development organization officer, small business owner and Board member, she has a unique understanding of the power of communications and the impact of authentic engagement with audiences.
I’ve had the pleasure of supporting Mayor Parker’s work as a contributor to the Victory Fund (and a former Victory Campaign Board member for the ten years before she joined the organization in 2017). And I’ve been a fan since she first announced her run for Mayor. There are some candidates who capture our imaginations and compel us to get involved: Mayor Parker was one of those people for me. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to engage her in a conversation about communications. I’m sure her perspective will be both interesting and instructive to others and I’m so grateful for her willingness to participate in the Common Sense Colloquy series.
My thanks to Mayor Parker for sharing her wisdom with us – and you.
Q: What communications lessons did you take away from the 2020 elections? How might they apply to policymakers and communicators this year?
A: Don’t ignore attacks or the spread of negative information, but be strategic in how you respond.
This past election cycle, we saw more anti-LGBTQ attacks on our candidates than we have seen at any other time in the last decade. The attacks were not only more frequent, but more direct – less dog whistles and more blatant uses of homophobia and transphobia. Our candidates were called pedophiles, sexual predators and drug users. Media pushed narratives that sensationalized our candidates’ sex lives. But the crisis communications strategies campaigns used to respond varied greatly, as did the degree of success.
We found that one of the most crucial determinants of whether the attacks were responded to effectively is having a communications staff well versed in the identities the candidate holds. For our candidates, a communications staff that understood the types of attacks that LGBTQ people and candidates traditionally face performed much better than those without that staff competency. The teams didn’t get squeamish or overrespond when an opponent or journalist asked about the candidate’s on-line dating profile or an old ex. They didn’t apologize for something they shouldn’t. They called out opponents and media outlets when the candidate was held to double standards a cisgender heterosexual candidate would not.
Running a communications shop for an LGBTQ candidate just isn’t the same as for a cisgender heterosexual candidate and that must be considered when building out the team. A flawed initial crisis communications response haunted a few of our candidates for the rest of their campaign. We expect our candidates to continue to face anti-LGBTQ attacks in the near future so be intentional about the communications team you hire. Of course, it also helps when the candidate has been clear and upfront about potential attacks.
Q: The LGBTQ Victory Fund is focused on electing openly LGBTQ candidates at every level and you achieved record success in terms of sheer numbers of candidates in 2020. How is the 2021/2022 election cycle shaping up for LGBTQ candidates? What should we expect and what trends do you think we’ll see emerge?
A: At Victory Fund, there is never an “off-election year” and we are gearing up to endorse around 200 candidates in 2021. The majority will be candidates for local office – given only a few state legislatures hold elections this year – but I personally believe those races are the most important. No level of government impacts your everyday life more than your town, city or county government. So electing these candidates to local office can significantly impact policy and LGBTQ equality.
The trend is ever more, and more diverse, candidates. And there are lots of exciting and potentially groundbreaking candidates running this year. We have nearly a dozen candidates running in New York City alone, including Corey Johnson, who will become the first out LGBTQ person and first out HIV+ person elected citywide in New York if he wins his race for comptroller. We can also elect our first out LGBTQ Black and first out LGBTQ Asian-American city councilmembers in New York, as well as the first out trans person elected in the entire state.
We also want to impact the redistricting process, which provides an opportunity to shape the political landscape at every level. In past redistricting efforts, our community has lost opportunities for representation when LGBTQ positive neighborhoods are divided up into multiple districts that dilute our voting power and make it harder for an LGBTQ candidate to win. But when districts are drawn that keep our community together, we build legacy seats that LGBTQ people are elected into time and time again. We want to be sure these districts are drawn fairly.
Q: You’re a former elected official having served as the first openly LGBTQ mayor of Houston. What do you think communicators can learn from your experience and that of other LGBTQ candidates? Are there key learnings from running as an out candidate that you believe apply to communications writ large?
A: You have to understand and control your public image. During my first two races for city council, whenever the media talked about my race the headline was “the gay candidate” or “homosexual activist runs for council.” I could have given a speech on the merits of dictatorship, and “gay” would have been the only mention in the headline. I lost both races.
Before my third attempt, I sat down with editors of local papers and TV stations and had them review their coverage of my campaigns. It was evident that while they covered the issue agendas of my opponents, my issue positions and vision for the city didn’t make the lead paragraphs, not to mention the headlines. Even my job was described as “gay activist,” although I worked for a well-known independent oil company. To their credit, they acknowledged it and the coverage changed. In my third race and subsequent races, voters learned about my policy agenda for Houston – not just that I was a lesbian candidate. The coverage changed, and so did my losing streak. I won my next nine races.
I tell that story to many LGBTQ candidates, but also women candidates, because the media tends to overfocus on our identities at the expense of our qualifications and issue positions. Few people will vote for you because you are LGBTQ or a woman, so it is essential that voters understand your vision and how you plan to make a difference in their lives. That said, your identity or your potential to make history may be a good angle to secure a story or coverage in the beginning. But after that lead, make sure you are talking about your constituents, not yourself.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Be nice to reporters. This truly is common sense, but I’m always shocked when candidates don’t understand it. If a journalist has a good relationship with you, you will have a more positive story about you in the end. It is that simple. Treat them with respect, engage in the small talk, be responsive and give them what they need. It pays off. Just remember, though, they have a job to do--they are not friends or allies.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Authenticity and integrity are important in politics – especially in local politics. Perhaps at times you feel you need to be less direct or obfuscate, but people see through that. In speeches, debates and interviews, I say stay true to yourself. Be direct in where you stand. Answer the questions that come your way. Voters will reward that. Authenticity is invaluable on the campaign trail and is difficult to regain once you lose it.